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Smriti Kiran: Riteish Deshmukh made his acting debut in 2003 with Tujhe Meri Kasam. Riteish is an architect by education. He founded an architectural firm, Evolution, in 2001, which he still runs, but his love for cinema trumped his love for building structures.

A decade and 28 films later, Riteish took his first step as a producer with Ravi Jadhav’s Balak Palak in 2013; following it up with Mahesh Limaye’s Yellow in 2014. He was invited to join the board of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image in 2015. He has helped build the Academy and the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival actively in the last six years. These are also the six years in which he has creatively collaborated a lot more with his wife, actor Genelia Deshmukh. Over the years, he has come into his own as a producer with his projects taking leaps in both scale and subjects. He made his Marathi acting debut with a monster hit, Lai Bhaari, and cemented that with Mauli in 2018.

Riteish, I know this is a very difficult time. Our country stands ravaged by the pandemic today. How are you processing the situation we’re in?

Riteish Deshmukh: It’s actually terrible. All of us have had to go through our own COVID situations and deal with them. The virus peaked last year, when it came down we thought that probably it was the end of it but, unfortunately, it wasn’t. Last year, the number was around 97,000, and recently it was about more than four lakh – so four times more. It’s truly a scary time.

More than that, it pains me to see the kind of struggle that we as citizens are going through apart from fighting the pandemic – the lack of oxygen, the lack of beds, especially people who are dealing with COVID. There are societies that are really helping them out as support systems, but still, there are many places where they are just told to stay away and ostracized. That is something immense to deal with.

Also, hats off to all the medical staff and the police and the municipal corporations all over India who are working 24×7 to do their best to give this country the best infrastructure that can be given. Everyone is trying to do the best, but we are in an unfortunate situation.

Smriti Kiran: We really are, and now we’re just hoping that somehow we come out of this, and everyone gets vaccinated because that is probably the only way we can fight the virus at this point.

Riteish Deshmukh: Vaccination is extremely important. Get vaccinated if you’re 18 and above. If anyone else is telling you otherwise, please try and convince them that this is not the time to debate – this is a time to just boost your immune system up to fight this virus. This is a really, really serious thing that we’re dealing with.

Smriti Kiran: Riteish, two of the projects that you are working on that we’re most excited about are the trilogy on the life of Chhatrapati Shivaji, with Nagraj Manjule, and the sequel to Faster Fene. Considering that the situation is so fluid right now, where do these projects stand today?

Riteish Deshmukh: The film with Nagraj Manjule on the life and times of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj is a very exciting thing that we’re working on. It’s a very different take that Nagraj has come up with. We are working hard towards bringing it to light soon, but unfortunately, due to COVID, everything has been delayed. Nevertheless, we are on our drawing board. We are taking this as a blessing in disguise, getting more time on our drawing board and to work on things. We’re trying to craft it even better and debate things. There are many times when we think that we didn’t get enough time on the table before we went on the floor, but here we are fortunate that nature has given us time and we are making the most of it.

Yes, we are working on part two of Faster Fene. This is the first time I’ll be talking about it. We had created a small world around Fene. We are hoping that we will take another social issue through this film and talk to the people about what’s happening in our society. In the first part, we spoke about examinations and how there are fake students writing exams for someone else. This time around we will deal with something interesting and real.

Amey Wagh in and as Faster Fene

Smriti Kiran: I want to take you back a little bit. You are rooted in a farming family from Latur that went on to become political royalty. Both your brothers are in politics, you studied architecture. When you come from such a powerful political background, how does one navigate going out there and asking for a job?

Riteish Deshmukh: Political family, yes. Powerful probably because my father held powerful positions – being the Chief Minister of Maharashtra twice and other posts. For me, being the son of Mr Vilasrao Deskhmukh only has pros. There’s nothing that I can think of that is a con. I’m proud of being his son. I’m also glad that he never interfered in the choices that I made.

“One thing I did early in my career was going to the sets and sitting behind the monitor and watching actors act. That was film school.”

In fact, I never wanted to be an actor. Someone thought that I was interested in films, so they offered me a film, and I said, ‘Okay, fine. Let’s try it. Why not?’ I enjoyed and loved movies, but it was not about seeing myself on a big screen – those were never my ambitions as a child. But watching movies was an exciting phase and I was happy doing just that. But to be given an opportunity to be part of the big screen… I only wanted to know how close I could get to that. It wasn’t about, ‘Yaar, picture mein kaam karna hai.’ No. It was about, ‘Agar mujhe na bhi bol diya toh main apne grandchildren ko bolunga ki ‘mujhe bhi ek baar ek film offer ki gayi thi.’’ Toh uss umeed se main gaya tha meeting ke liye, aur unhone mujhe pasand kar liya – phir ek film ho gayi.

 

How difficult was it to navigate from there? Because I’ve seen it since my childhood, subconsciously, I know exactly how things work. Going to politics wouldn’t have been a new thing. It would have been a difficult thing. It’s not like I can wake up tomorrow, stand up and say, ‘I want to join politics.’ No, I don’t think it’s as simple as that – even for someone who comes from the family.

Riteish and Genelia Deshmukh in Tujhe Meri Kasam

When I joined films, I had to do my own meetings. I was never on a set. So, lights, camera, focus mark kya hota hai, magazine khatam ho gayi toh ruko, baad mein digital aaya – all these new things – were educational for me. Farah Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Karan Johar, all of these people were extremely kind to me. One thing I did early in my career was going to the sets and sitting behind the monitor and watching actors act. That was film school. Even on my films, whenever I was on set, I would be looking at them and thinking, ‘If I had to say that line, how would I see it? How differently has he said in the given scenario and situation?’ I would cross-check my notes with them.

Of course, good, bad, ugly, I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best in the business, be it directors or actors. The kind of choices I had to make, primarily in multi-starters, gave me the opportunity of working with actors across generations: from Mithun da to Rishi Kapoor sahab to Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, right up to the youngsters, Tiger Shroff and Siddharth Malhotra, I feel extremely blessed in terms of my journey. I look at my journey as someone who never wanted to be an actor, who got an opportunity to be on this big screen – so, how many people was I fortunate enough to share a screen with? Did I get that opportunity? God was kind, and I’m happy.

Smriti Kiran: Riteish, you’ve done prolific work as an actor. Your comic timing has really been appreciated and people really like you within the industry. Despite the films that you have done getting a lot of commercial success, I have never ever seen any kind of rancour come from you in terms of what somebody might have written about a film that you’ve done. How did you manage to arrive at this level of maturity that eludes so many?

Riteish Deshmukh: I’ll tell you an interesting story. Many years ago, when my father was still the Chief Minister, I remember one of the film critics wrote about how I was not a very fine actor, which I was okay with. But at times, they became a bit more personal about my personal choices and life. This deeply hurt me when I read it in that review. I was seething with anger, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

The Deshmukh Family

I remember one day I was angry and my father asked me, ‘You’re looking upset. What happened?’ I said, ‘Look at this review. I’m okay with him saying, “I’m the worst actor. I am a piece of furniture.” I’m fine with that. But there are certain lines that he wrote that go beyond the film and my performance – it gets into my personal space.’ At that time, it was like, ‘What do I do?’ He said, ‘What is your job?’ I said ‘To act.’ And he said, ‘So, just do that. His job is to write. Don’t bother about what he’s writing. Let him do his job. Give him that freedom. You have your freedom in front of the screen. You do what you have to do.’

 

“Whatever choices I made were better films than the ones that I rejected.”

At that point, it opened me up to thinking, ‘You know what, it really doesn’t matter. Fair enough. If he wants to get personal or write something that is his viewpoint, he has every right to do that. I shouldn’t object to what he thinks or how he wants to talk about me. The only thing I can do is take care of my choices as an actor.’

Also, when I debuted, big production houses only wanted to work with stars. ‘Aap successful ban jao, baad mein hamare paas aana. Phir hum dekhenge ki aap ko hum cast karenge ki nahi karenge.’ Baad mein jab moderate success mila, they started working with newcomers. I said, ‘Ye bhi boat chhoot gayi, woh bhi boat chhoot gayi. Ab jayenge kahan?’ The lot that came in between 2000 and 2006 had a really difficult time in terms of navigating the industry. At the same time, I was more than happy to.

A lot of people out there thought, ‘Arre, iske pita toh CM hai, isko kya problem hogi? Isko film mil jayegi. Isko film bhi mil rahi hai because his father’s the CM.’ I don’t think that what they thought was wrong. Probably, if I was in that position, I would’ve thought the same. I’m not angry with that. But I know that at my own level I had to figure it out. If you get four films, I had to choose from two. It also wasn’t that I had one film on one hand and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge on the other and I was signing the former and rejecting the latter. Whatever choices I made were better films than the ones that I rejected.

Smriti Kiran: How do you juggle these two worlds? Because you come from a very front-facing family, anything that you do has a reflection on your family members, and what your family members do have a reflection on you. Is that also one of the reasons why you keep a low profile?

Riteish Deshmukh: I prefer keeping a low profile. I’m always being a bit cautious of what I do and what I say. I measure my words whenever I talk and I hope to say the right things at the right time, if I don’t have anything interesting to say, I’d rather keep quiet. When I did adult comedies like Masti and Kya Kool Hai Hum, my father was the CM, so I asked, ‘Should I be doing these films?’ And I remember my father telling me, ‘Your choices are your choices. You have to respect the kind of work that you do, and you respect whatever work you do – be it as an actor, or a spot boy on the set. You might be a lights man or a cameraman, or you might be a director or producer. You have to respect any work that you’re doing currently and do it with a full heart.’

I agree that there have been times when we went to the Grand Masti phase and probably the third film where scenes have probably gone a bit too far. There have been many scenes that we have cut, where we were like, ‘Yaar, ye nahi kar sakte. Let’s get that thing down. Chalo, teen chhod dete hai, ek le lete hai.’ Those are the kinds of negotiations that went on on the set, which the reviewer or the audience would never know about. But even after a lot of negotiation if someone asks, ‘This is what you give?’ Yes, this is what we give.

Smriti Kiran: Riteish, if somebody in your family decided that they were going for cricket, the entire spectrum of obsessions, as far as Indians are concerned – politics, cricket and cinema – would be complete.

Riteish Deshmukh: Strangely, this November I’ll be completing 20 years in front of the camera. I always thought my first film would be my last film, and to be here for 20 years – talking to you, someone wanting to interview you or someone wanting to say, ‘Script padh lo, we would like to sign you,’ and still being able to go out of my house and work and come back happy – is a blessing.

Smriti Kiran: Your first film also gave you your wife.

Riteish Deshmukh: Yeah! I’m just saying that if I had said no to that film, I would not be in a profession that I deeply love; I would have not met Genelia – 10 years of dating, eight years of marriage and two wonderful kids… My life would have been different and would have been hell. I’m glad that it all worked out.

Smriti Kiran: Coming to your production house, Mumbai Film Company, that you founded in 2013. You could’ve chosen to back any projects in Hindi, but you have consistently only produced Marathi films. What prompted you to choose this direction? What is your vision for the company?

Riteish Deshmukh: The reason why I make Marathi films is because of my father. He said, ‘You have been working in the industry for a long time. What about Marathi films? You should do something for our regional cinema.’ Before he became the Chief Minister, he was the Cultural Affairs Minister for a very long time. He was closely associated with the cultural aspect of Maharashtra – right from cinema, stage plays and other cultural activities. Coincidently, today, my elder brother, Amit, is the Cultural Affairs Minister. That’s what prompted me.

I’m glad that the choices I couldn’t make professionally as an actor I can now make as a producer. I’m happy to make films like Balak Palak, which is about four teenage kids wanting to watch their first porn film, or Yellow, for which we were also honoured with a National Award, which is about a child with Down’s syndrome living her dreams, even Faster Fene, Lai Bhaari and Mauli. The journey has been exciting. Today, we are working on bigger projects than what we worked on earlier: Chhatrapati Shivaji being the most ambitious film, and Faster Fene part two.

When I was in Latur, my hometown, last year, I got these two amazing scripts from people from a small town who sent them to me. I get many scripts and some of them, unfortunately, are not up to the mark, but two of them were just fascinating. I’m so glad that we have signed up with them to develop some work. I’ll be happy if we are able to make films with them and create absolutely raw and really great content.

Unfortunately, the film industry is such a bubble that focuses only on Bandra to Lokhandwala. Anyone who wants to break into that system has to come into that bubble and say, ‘I’m here!’ Some people who don’t have the opportunity of coming to the cities. I’m sure directors like Anubhav (Sinha) who goes to Benaras and shoots there, must be meeting so many talented people in small towns. You get to know all the raw stuff that’s happening out there and the writing is so strong. I’m hoping that as a production house we can have combined dreams. It’s not only about your dream. They can be a part of your dream and together we can have a combined dream of making something meaningful.

Smriti Kiran: You’ve been on our board and you’ve been a guiding light as far as Marathi cinema is concerned. I think you’re the best person to ask about the inner workings of the Marathi film industry. Every industry has an ecosystem. Every industry has its own rules. Give us a brief window into that. Talk a little bit about what the ecosystem is like in the Marathi film industry.

Riteish Deshmukh: When you are making a Hindi film, there is a certain star cast that dictates the kind of budget that you can mount on them. At the same time, you have satellite and digital platforms, theatrical releases, music and overseas – these are the five territories you can exploit to make this film viable. When it comes to Marathi films, they are primarily different from other regional languages like Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam. These four languages are primarily the first choice for those states. If a film is released alongside a Hindi film, they might choose to watch their film first and then go to your film. In Maharashtra, when a Hindi film is released, that film is the first choice and then you’ll have a Marathi.

“Unfortunately, the film industry is such a bubble that focuses only on Bandra to Lokhandwala. Anyone who wants to break into that system has to come into that bubble and say, ‘I’m here!’

Also, a hundred-crore budget film coming on the same day will have significantly better locations, technicality etc. It’s all huge. But the camera is going to cost the same. It’s not like ki Hindi film ke liye thoda bada camera bana hai aur Marathi film ke liye thoda sasta hai. Of course, there’ll be certain rebates in terms of hiring charges, but they’re not much if compared. Eventually, if you have to make a Marathi film, you’re trying to figure out how you can make the film which is made in hundred crores in two-and-a-half crores. So, the first battle is always about the budget. Then, you have to cramp up in terms of days. You have to shoot a Marathi film in 28-30 days, but in big films, you’re only shooting a song for 14 days.

First, the big issue that we have are the parameters of the budget that we work with. It’s very low. Second, we have some of the finest films happening in Marathi because the writing is so strong. If you don’t have enough budget then the writing better be strong. That’s how they work. The advantage of Marathi cinema is that the potency in content is extremely high. They experiment with content. At the same time, you will have people saying, ‘Oh, I made a great film. I want it to be in MAMI.’ That is great. But can that showcase at MAMI convert itself to commercial success and give it more of a chance to become a hit film?

There needs to be a balance. The art form is fantastic because the industry is small. In the Hindi film industry, even your art film has a decent budget. If a big star decides to work in more content-driven cinema, then you will still have a certain draw. In Marathi, that’s not the case. If you’re fighting for shows with Hindi cinema, then you need to be commercial. In commerce, sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t.

Riteish Deshmukh in Lai Bhaari

The film that really got it right was Sairat. Nagraj’s film was phenomenal. It showed that a Marathi film earning 100 crores is like a Hindi film earning 500 crores. That’s the strength of this one Marathi film that he has done. Films like Lai Bhaari, or Natsamrat with Nana Patekar, which made 50 crores, were great. These 30-, 40-, 50 crores are great numbers, but we don’t see that usually. If I have to see the Marathi industry in the long term, apart from content-driven cinema – and I’m saying that commerce is also important – we need three films yearly that do 20 crores to start with. If you have 10-12 films that do between 10-30 crores, the industry can sustain itself. But if you constantly have films that are doing 2-5 crores, then everything goes very small.

Smriti Kiran: That brings me to the slate that you’ve created and continue to create at Mumbai Film Company. There are films like Mauli, Lai Bhaari and Faster Fene, and then you have films like Balak Palak and Yellow. Is this by design – to get a few films that get the numbers that you need to get so that you can also push the projects that you want to push, in which the talent is new and the subject matter deserves a certain kind of budget?

Riteish Deshmukh: Yes. In Mumbai Film Company, of course, we are looking at trying to figure out certain films that are commercial. The way we go about it is, how can we make a Balak Palak into a commercial film? I’m not saying that we need to make Balak Palak into a Dhamaal or Housefull. But can we get the commercial aspect within that space? It’s very important.

Balak Palak touched about eight crores in 2013, which was a huge number for us. We didn’t know that a film based on four kids, no star cast, about their experiences, would make so many people come to the theatres to watch it. So, we were happy with that. That helped us understand that if you make the right content and if it’s promoted well and pitched correctly, then the Marathi audiences will definitely come to the theatres and watch it.

Smriti Kiran: Is there a department at Mumbai Film Company that scouts for talent? Do you actively go out there and look for new writers and new talent and then somehow try to create that opportunity that they might not have? Because you are somebody with a lot of clout, you can make projects happen, you can green-light projects.

Riteish Deshmukh: I’ll tell you how we work. We are actually a very slim team. The pandemic has taught us to work on WhatsApp. I get many Marathi scripts on Twitter and Instagram, which I divert to my office. They speak to everyone and figure things out. Some of them are just enthusiastic writers, which we respect – it starts from there. Some are really nice, where you think that the writing is great but have to judge for yourself because you probably feel that it may not be the right time to release such a subject.

Right now, it’s such a questioning time. You are trying to figure things out. Are you going to make theatrical films? Are you going to make films for a digital base? Should we make this a film or a series? Now the writers are saying, ‘Isko film bhi bana sakte hai, series bhi bana sakte hai. Aap decide karo aap ko kya banana hai?’ It’s almost bespoke writing right now. Aap ke hisab se aap ko cut kar ke sila denge.

 

“If you make the right content and if it’s promoted well and pitched correctly, then the Marathi audiences will definitely come to the theatres and watch it.”

Apart from that, the purity in writing is immense. Suppose, it’s a farmer’s story. The way we see a farmer’s story through a city perspective is completely different from the person who says that the farmer was his neighbour and this is how he felt and this is what he did. The pain in that writing is much different from the way we look at it. We have a writers’ cell, and then a creative cell that starts working. So, for these two scripts that we got, we collaborated with them and then tried to figure out how we could mould this, keeping maximum writing to the writer whose original idea it is, and go ahead once we know that both are in sync.

We are out there scouting for talent. I’m forever looking for fresh talent to launch, to be given a chance – be it a writer, be it a DOP, actors or directors. I’m game for it.

But as a production company, we can only do as much as curating and creating. We need support from digital partners. I’m sure players like Amazon, Netflix and Hotstar are concentrating a lot on the Hindi market. and definitely doing a lot in regional cinema, too. No doubt. They are slowly getting into Marathi cinema, curating their portfolio or library, as they call it. We’ll be happy to collaborate with these partners, and talks are going on. Together, we can really give people a chance.

India is a country of many languages and everyone has a different way of projecting it through their cinema. Of course, you will have Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi cinema, but I feel that cinemas from the North East, Bhojpuri cinema, or Bengali cinema are also brilliant, content-wise. In my eyes, they are fantastic. They’re doing wonderfully for themselves. As a support system, as a government, we need to really nurture these industries because it’s very easy for Marathi talent to give up Marathi and move to Hindi cinema; but every language has its beauty and that needs to be nurtured.

Smriti Kiran: We did a session as part of the Industry Programme of MAMI with creators in the Malayalam industry. Anjali Menon, who’s a director, said that it is very important for platforms to get advisers or creative people on board who can point them to the right talent and right stories and milieu as the idea is not to lose the authenticity of either the language or the story.

Riteish Deshmukh: Just to add to that, Hindi, Telugu and Tamil films have huge budgets – there are obviously variations – but Marathi cinema is not that. I really hope that these platforms, when they curate say 10 films a year, which have decent sized budgets, sit and identify the makers that they want to work with, identify the scripts and give opportunities. As a producer, it’s not about me making money, but bringing out great content.

“When you’re making regional cinema, be regional. Don’t try to be national.”

Also, the Marathi speaking population is almost seven-eight crores. So, they are going to consume content. It’s just that we’re not being able to cater to the content that they want to consume. Why did Sairat do such phenomenal numbers? Or Lai Bhaari? Or Natsamrat? Or Duniyadari? Or Time Pass? It’s because somewhere some people thought, ‘Oh, this is my kind of content.’

We can still do that. It’s just that we need a support system. And regional cinema right now – Marathi, Gujarati or Punjabi – feels that there should be some support system from the platforms because that’s the new ecosystem that we need to fit into.

Smriti Kiran: Also, Riteish, look at talent like Chaitanya Tamhane. Look at the films he’s made, who he’s collaborating with and the kind of stories he’s telling. I think we need to celebrate that even more.

Riteish Deshmukh: When I look at Chaitanya, I feel he is a man with a dream, a mission, and he is out there to live his dream, make what he thinks is fantastic and not be bogged down by the commercial aspect of it – he’s an artist, with a lot of paintbrushes and a lot of colours, and he does what he wants to. I’m happy that his artwork is being appreciated, curated and even moulded and transformed into something larger that he can do at some level. We are extremely proud. I’m proud of the fact that he has gone there and made a Marathi film. I’ll be as proud even if he makes a Hindi film, Bengali film, Italian or English film – that doesn’t really matter. What I’m trying to say is, when you go abroad, you get influenced, and start making their kind of cinema, which is also great, but going there and trying to still stick to your roots is commendable and needs to be appreciated.

Smriti Kiran: Riteish, you’ve spent 20 years in the industry. When you entered the industry and started working, how did you arrive at these lessons? It’s a very insecure industry. It comes with a lot of things that you have to navigate other than your craft. So, tell us a little bit about all of these learnings over the years.

Riteish Deshmukh: As you said, you come here and you start watching fantastic people. In my first film itself, I had Satish Shah ji and Shakti Kapoor who are fantastic in their craft. In my debut film, Mr Shakti Kapoor, who played my father, was such a wonderful gentleman on set for newcomers like me and Genelia. Satish Shah ji was also a fantastic actor. They knew that these two people didn’t know anything because they were just two newcomers, they really helped. So, it was very important for us to be guided. Then, Genelia went to the South, did fantastic films and navigated that industry on her own. I was doing one film after the other here.

One person that really changed me as an actor is Indra Kumar. When I did Masti, I didn’t know what to do. I was just looking at him trying to do 50% of what he did. My comic timing is 15% of what Indra Kumar’s comic timing is when he’s narrating the script to me. He is just phenomenal and the best director that I’ve worked with. I’m just looking at him, learning about what’s good, what’s not good.

I’ve seen two senior actors who are great at improv. There’s a particular scene given to the three of us and the senior actors improvising one scene without a line. I’m like, ‘Yeh kya ho raha hai?’ They were having a go at each other. They are improving the scene, so I cannot complain because the film was successful. But they were adding on their own so much that it was just beautiful to watch. But at the same time, it’s extremely important to improv in rehearsals and not in takes so that you don’t catch the other actor off guard.

Smriti Kiran: What excites you as a producer? How do you choose a film that you will put your time and money into?

Riteish Deshmukh: The one thought that we at Mumbai Film Company really follow is whether apart from the idea, does the core touch you emotionally? The emotion needs to be correct. Of course, either you can do the emotion and have tragedy, action, suspense, drama or humour around it. Like Balak PalakBalak means kids and Palak means parents. It’s a conversation between kids and parents. Of course, there’s humour, but it is so important for parents to talk about sex education to children at that growing age. Instead of having them go out and seek the information, can you be their friend to guide them correctly? They are going to seek it. There’s nothing you can do to stop that. But today, with the internet and everyone having a tablet, it’s becoming even easier. There is a certain age at which you can handle this information. How safely you can guide them is extremely important. So, that was the core emotion.

Balak Palak

Even when we did Faster Fene, apart from the thrill and the suspense, the core emotion was about eight students going for examinations and not being able to find their numbers or committing suicides under pressure. We try to figure out what is that one core emotion that we can underline and that probably the people that you are making the film for can relate to. When you’re making regional cinema, be regional. Don’t try to be national. That is very important.

Smriti Kiran: With regional cinema, you have to speak about what the people of that region might connect with, which sometimes doesn’t happen at the national level.

Riteish Deshmukh: I was reading this book on the great Dada Kondke. He used to tour various villages for his plays and shows in the late sixties to early seventies. He used to go to these villages and despite his act being fully formed, a day before he would try figuring out what is happening in the place where he’s performing. Who’s the sarpanch, kuch issue hua kya, kuch maara maari hua kya, acha yeh lafda ho gaya yaha par, acha dono bhaiyo ka jhagda ho gaya. He used to take all that information and make it a part of that entire act. So, he’d say, ‘Ae, Patil!’ and that guy would be in the audience. So, that relatability of being local becomes very important. You feel that this function was catered to me and made especially for me, which makes it more special. That was the beauty of that man. When you talk about making it local then you have to touch those few points and strings that touch the local hearts.

Smriti Kiran: Now that you are actively working in the Marathi industry as a producer and actor, what do you think the industry needs to thrive?

Riteish Deshmukh: Currently there are a lot of Hindi movies that are going to platforms, but the Marathi industry, unfortunately, doesn’t have that. Unfortunately, many workers who depend on this industry to survive and thrive are facing financial crises. The producers, the actors, many of them are out of work. It’s important for the government to come in and give certain incentives that are more financial because everything is about finance, right? Whenever the industry starts making movies, it would really need that to survive. I’ll be most happy if the government comes up and makes an alternate chain of cinemas that are only for Marathi cinema, which are much smaller, 50-seater or 100-seater. Give incentives to larger multiplex players to come and put in four screens under the rebate structure, where two screens are specially for Marathi, maybe you can make 200-200 for Hindi cinema, 100-100 for Marathi and give that opportunity to the people to come and watch it.

Smriti Kiran: When the films from the South release in the North, logistical things like show timings, subtitles really need to be worked on because there is a wider audience out there and it is about getting it to that audience.

Riteish Deshmukh: Absolutely. South Indian films going to the North is a different thing, but those films are not facing the same issue in the South. A Telugu film is not facing a show timing issue because of a Hindi film. Hindi films should be released in Maharashtra because people want to watch that, right? I’m asking whether the government can do something to make sure that alternatively, you can have a way for Marathi cinema to have enough showcasing so that they can survive? For example, if you have 500 theatres, out of which 450 are taken by Hindi films and only 50 are for Marathi films, can we make that 50 to 200? If it becomes 6,000 – 50 is not increasing to 200 – Hindi films are then taking 5,500 and Marathi is still left with 50. So, that share needs to increase along with Hindi films increasing. It’s our duty to make sure that the culture and the regional language survives within the kind of cinema we make and within the literature that we write. Apart from talking in English, apart from learning Hindi, it’s important for us to make sure that our children know Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Malayalam because that’s our culture, that’s our heritage. It’s easy to get washed away. It’s happening but we should do our best.

Smriti Kiran: Tell us a little bit about Imagine, the new initiative that you are about to launch in a couple of months with Genelia.

Riteish Deshmukh: Genelia and I became vegetarian about four years ago, and 10 months ago we went vegan. I missed my meat. I used to crave my meat. I always thought, ‘How could I get over it?’ When we were in America three years ago, we came across plant-based meats. It really excited us because I thought that if this is what it tastes like, then I don’t need to kill an animal to have meat. It’s plant-based, it has high protein. But they were catering to the burger-eating population. India is not primarily a burger eating nation – we love our tikka, we love our biryani, we love our seekh kebabs. So, that’s what we are planning to do, and that’s what we are launching: an Indian based plant meat company. We are very excited. We are almost ready. Probably, within a month, we should be out there. First, we launch in Mumbai.

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube

Ayush Awasthi: Your comic timing is very unique. Who are your major influences when it comes to comic timing?

Riteish Deshmukh: You give a lot of respect and credit to actors for the comic timing but it’s always in the writing. If it’s well written, then, to say it is the easiest job. The content is the writing, the comedy is in the writing, the timing is in the writing. Of course, delivery is something that one needs to work on and figure out.

When you ask me who my favourites are in comedy, I’d say, Ashok Saraf, Laxmikant Berde, Mehmood sahab, Kadar Khan, Paresh Rawal, Rishi Kapoor and Boman Irani. Among contemporaries, Akshay Kumar is fantastic, Aftab (Shivdasani] is fantastic, Arshad Warsi is superb. These are all the actors that I have worked with, whom I have seen and have had an influence on me. There’s so much to learn from them. Even if you can find humour in a plain simple line, it’s wonderful.

Vishnu Kumar: What are the most important attributes of a script that appeal to you?

Riteish Deshmukh: If you’re not going to judge by the films that I have signed and released, only then can I tell you the attributes that I like.

Usually, I should enjoy the film when I’m reading it. I should just feel ki main ye film theatre mein jaa kar zaroor dekhunga. Primarily, what an actor looks first in a script is, ye achi hai ya nahi because film nahi chalegi toh kisi ka fayda nahi hai – na script ka fayda hai, na aap ka fayda hai, na director ka fayda hai, na producer ka fayda hai; agar film chali toh sab ka fayda hai because it’s a hit film so people will appreciate you and come again to watch you in your next film. Second thing is, what are you doing in the film? It could be that you’re the solo lead and you get everything, or you are in a multi-star cast and a certain part of the film depends on you, and if it’s an important role and you’re okay with it, then you can do that. Primarily, it is about the script and the part that you’re playing.

Also, who’s making the film is very important because apart from the script, the director also needs to be someone whom you can trust yourself with. However good you may be, if the film is not good, it’s not worth it. A good director and a good film can make bad acting bearable. I have survived for 20 years, so I can tell you that.

Multi-starrer films are a mindset. Not every actor can do a multi-starrer. If you’re so conscious of ‘Arre, mera line kya hai?’ ‘Mujhe kya mil raha hai?’ ‘Ye punch kiska hai?’ phir woh nahi hoga. I have done many multi-starrer films. I have done four Housefulls, three Mastis and three Dhamaals, with a load of actors – right from Akshay Kumar, Madhuri ji, Anil sir to Boman Irani to Arshad Warsi.

In comedy, you have to be a selfless actor. You will have your punch. When you read the script, you’ll know what your part is. Ab usko better kar sakte ho aap. Lekin jab aap kisi bhi scene mein kisi aur ke punch pe react nahi kiya, toh punch maar khayega. Woh scene maar khayega, aur jab scene maar khayega, toh film maar khayegi, so it doesn’t work. If you want to work in a multi-starrer film, then you’ll have to know that there are certain scenes written for you, that you need to respect, and there are certain scenes that are written for other actors that you need to respect too and react accordingly for the film to be better. It’s a collective effort. I have seen many scenes where someone is giving a punch and the other actor is not reacting because, ‘Arre, main kyun react karu?’ Then it doesn’t work. Don’t sign the film in that case.

Mrunmayee Vikram: You said that the reason why you are producing Marathi movies is mainly because of your father. But what really sparked you to go into production, considering that production is a hell of a lot of work, you’re also not in front of the camera but the brains behind the whole thing?

Riteish Deshmukh: My father inspired me to do something in Marathi films. He didn’t ask me to produce Marathi films. He said to probably act or do something. I’m happy that I started producing films. Before I acted, I had produced two films with kids: the first one was Balak Palak, and the second one was Yellow. It was more so because they were content-driven cinema.

For the first film, Ravi Jadhav and Uttung Thakur, the fantastic director and producer, came together and saw the film with me. In fact, for Balak Palak, they invited me to be a producer of the film and I said, ‘This is the film that I want to debut in as a producer.’ They were kind enough to allow me to be a part of their film. Uttung is a dear friend. Together, we produced Yellow. That’s how we started going about it.

Jumping into production is not easy. By then, I had done about 30 odd films. I had seen things around me. I can attest to the fact that an actor’s job is the easiest job. You have to just sit there and say, ‘Mujhe ek black coffee chahiye.’ Yeh thik hai na? Aapke paas aa jayegi black coffee kyunki aap actor ho. Aap producer ho toh, ‘Yaar kahan se leke aau, iska toh 45 rupees lagega.’

Uttung helped me by handling the production himself. Then, when we did Lai Bhaari, it was Jeetendra Thackeray who handled the production and I was acting in the film. So, it was easy on me. They did a wonderful job. CineVista and Ameya Khopkar were wonderful.

Faster Fene was the first film that I produced on my own. I produced that entire film on a mobile phone and without an office. That’s how I did it. I got a great EP. I told him to do it from his office. I paid rent for that office. So, I was sitting on a mobile phone and producing the entire film. You have to find ways to do it, and this is how I did it.

Ramiz Khan: As a producer, what kind of films are you looking to invest in?

Riteish Deshmukh: A good film. I don’t know what a good film is. Once you read a script, it should make you feel good. There’s nothing like a particular kind of film in terms of genres that I’m trying to make. If it’s a thriller, it should thrill you. If it’s a comedy, it should make you laugh. That’s a good film. If it is a horror film and it’s making you laugh, then it’s a bad film; and if it’s a comedy that is scaring you, then that’s a bad film.

I was working with Ram Gopal Varma for the first time. He was making this film just after Company. We were shooting for Naach, which was my first time with a big director, working with Abhishek (Bachchan), who was a dear friend. I got a long page and I was working with the director. I was new, I didn’t know what acting was. I was trying to learn things from neighbouring actors and by watching movies, I would be like, ‘Abhi kya karna hai? Iss scene mein main kya karu?’ So, I went to Ram ji and I asked him, ‘Sir, how do you want me to do the scene?’ Ek actor ka hota hai na ki director ko puche ki scene kaise karu. He was on his phone and he looked at me and said, ‘Riteish, what kind of a stupid question is that that?’ I was like, ‘It’s not stupid. I’m just asking how to do this.’ He said, ‘There’s only one way to do the scene: the correct way. If you’re wrong, I’ll tell you. Just do what you want to do.’ He was absolutely right. There is only one way to do a scene – and that’s the correct way, and there’s only one kind of film to do – that’s a good film which should make you feel good.

Suhas Naik: You seem to get along with everyone in the Marathi and the Hindi film industry. What is the one lesson you have learned that is the key to building and maintaining professional relationships in the industry?

Riteish Deshmukh: Five-seven years ago, people would ask me how amidst so many camps I could be so friendly. My relationship with everyone should be personal relationships and not work-related. Jab aap kisise dosti kar rahe ho, agar aap kaam ki umeed na rakho toh dosti barkarar hai. Main toh kaam maangne nai jaa raha, mujhe kaam nai chahiye; aap mere dost ho, main aapke sath coffee peene jaa raha hu, thoda hasenge, thoda muskurayinge, we’ll have a great time. That is what friendship should be.

The moment there is work, conversations like these tend to happen more. ‘Oh, I’m having a coffee with him because I think we can work together,’ ‘I can be a co-actor with you,’ or ‘You’re a producer, why don’t you produce a film with me,’ or a director, ‘Why don’t you cast me in your next film?’ These are not the conversations I have never had. I guess by now, it’s almost clear to whoever is friendly with me.

Life is too short to think ki yaar kya hoga, kya nahi hoga, Bhagwan jitna aapko deta hai usme khush raho, which is fantastic. Dosti banao, aur umeed zyada mat rakho – kam umeed hai, khushi zyada milegi.

Swarangi Songire: How do you see the future of regional cinema on a national level and international level? Say, Fandry by Nagraj Manjule was celebrated on an international level, and it was only then that we, as Maharashtrians, got to know about it.

Riteish Deshmukh: I feel that Marathi cinema needs to be celebrated. Any kind of cinema, for that matter. We should feel proud of any cinema that is celebrated internationally. We were talking about Chaitanya whose cinema has been celebrated abroad, and we have been making some great films – be it Fandry or Court or Killa. You’re right. When we get international awards or national awards, then we think about watching the movie.

But if you go to see it, it’s our fault as Maharashtrians that we do not give a chance to Marathi cinema. We go and watch our Hindi films, which is great. Sometimes go out of your way, remove those three hours and watch a Marathi film. We are sometimes lazy when it comes to going to a theatre and watching Marathi films. Those hundred rupees that you give to a theatre doesn’t go to the producer or actor directly. 30 rupees will go to the theatre, 20 rupees go to the popcorn guy, 10 rupees will go to tax, five rupees will go to the actor – it’s all divided. For regional cinema, it’s very important that we have commercial success. Content-driven cinema will get us awards and international recognition, which is great, but it’s important for cinema to be commercial for an industry to survive.

To marry content and commerce is something that we all should strive for. We’ll fail, but we’ll get up, we’ll work again and we’ll try harder.

Ankit Sharma: How do we create a scenario where what’s in the script is given more importance than what language it is in? Secondly, I see a lack of content in the English language from India, even though our industry entirely depends upon communication in the English language.

Riteish Deshmukh: Primarily when we make films in a particular language, we try to connect first with the people who speak that language. That is extremely important. If I’m making a Marathi film, my first connection should be a Marathi person. Then there are film lovers who like to watch regional cinema, who like to watch Marathi films and Bengali films. Of course, that will happen but that number is extremely low. Humare desh me Hollywood films dekhne ka number bohot zyada hai. We will enjoy our English movies.

Forget English movies, there are people who enjoy English movies dubbed in Hindi more than our original Hindi films. It’s their choice. You cannot dictate logon ko kya pasand aayega. You cannot dictate what they should watch. We have to up our content to their level for them to watch.

I feel that there are already a lot of English movies coming from Hollywood here at a particular scale, one which a top star cast Hindi film cannot match. So, it becomes difficult. There are many films within India that are done in the English language that I see on Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon. There are certain series, too, which are India based, in English.

In theatres, the numbers are probably not encouraging enough for a theatrical release. I hope we can eventually crossover. I’ve watched most of the South Indian films on Netflix and Amazon, but I have not gone to a theatre to watch them, though I like watching them. I’m also responsible for not helping this cause of other languages being appreciated in regions apart from the home region.

Jaldeep Tiple: Is Mumbai Film Company working on web series, especially in the Marathi language? There is a lot of content on platforms in Hindi, but so far nothing great in Marathi has come out.

Riteish Deshmukh: I would love to curate and develop series in Marathi. I had developed a nice series in Marathi a couple of years ago. When we took it to a platform, they said, ‘Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of traction in Marathi. So, why don’t you do the same in Hindi?’ I thought it was unwise because it was written for a particular language and the milieu was typically Maharashtrian. We kept that on the back burner. Now, there is a certain movement for Marathi content on digital platforms, so probably it’s the right time to pitch.

With films, you can make one and you can go to people, but in digital, without the platform, what can you do? It’s not like you can release a digital series even if a platform says no, or three platforms say ki yeh nahi kar sakte. Aap toh release nahi kar paoge. So, there are a lot of limitations. I’m sure that today the reins are in the hands of the owners of the platform, but eventually, it will come to content creators. There will be enough platforms, enough traction. Agar yeh nahi hai toh mai iss platform pe daal dunga for free or you can subscribe for 2-3 rupees.

Everything is about revenue generation. The moment you have a revenue model for something to self-sustain, then there’ll be more interest – like what YouTube does for YouTube influencers, smaller content, which was not meant for theatre and television. They have made their own world, they are self-sustaining, and they are making great money.

Rudra Dave: Will Smith said that after his 50th birthday he would like to live fearlessly and do things that he would have not said or done because of his huge stardom. Do you think the same can be applied to actors in the Hindi film industry? I know that a lot of actors speak out, including yourself. You have often talked about political issues and current affairs. But still, the majority of the big stars have not spoken up, especially in the times we live, where we need to point out certain inefficiencies or hold certain people accountable. So, can we expect a united response from the big stars in such situations or is it too unrealistic to expect that?

Riteish Deshmukh: Will Smith individually has said that he has crossed 50 and he wants to live the way he wants to live. It’s not the entire Hollywood saying, ‘Now we are 50, so now we are going to live.’ It’s fantastic. There always comes a time when you think that you are too cautious all the time and now you want to speak. That time is for each individual to decide. Sometimes you feel ki main bolunga toh baat ka batangad zyada ho jaayega. Kuch log sochte hai ki thik hai jo bhi ho mai bol raha hu, jo sochna hai socho. Lekin ye bohot zaroori hai ki we as a country should give enough freedom to everyone to express their opinions – opinions that you like, opinions that you dislike. There is no space for violence in our country just because you do not like someone’s opinion. Words should be debated with intellect and not abuse. You need to not engage in violence digitally and definitely not physically, and that should be condoned.

Of course, opinions matter when you look up to actors and think that certain opinion-makers can make a difference and they need to speak up. I think everyone needs to speak up. There’s a lot of onus on the actors for not speaking out. Main yeh bolta hu ki kitne industrialists hai jo baat karte hai ya kitne cricketers hai jo baat karte hai? Ye actors ko hi kyun baat karna padta hai? Mujhe lagta hai ki itni freedom honi chahiye ki sab log baat kar sake. Jisko baat nahi karna hai woh uski marzi hai. Aap ye toh nahi bol sakte ki tumko toh bolna padega, tum kyun nahi bol re ho, tum itne bade star ho toh tumko bolna padega. Nahi bolna mujhe. Thik hai, main yeh bol raha hu ki aapka chahana ek baat hai par utna independence unko bhi do ki jab unhe sahi waqt lage tab woh baat kare.

Priyanka Raina: How are you spending time during the lockdown? What would you like to say to the people of Mumbai, especially those who are dealing with the crisis?

Riteish Deshmukh: This is a tough time. Mentally, it can give you a lot of problems. While we are taking our physical health seriously, we need to take our mental health seriously. After all this, we really need to think, ‘Do I need to speak to someone to feel better?’ I think the moment you feel better in your head, your heart will be happy. In India, there is a lot of taboo around it. ‘Yaar, main psychiatrist…’ ‘Tu pagal ho gaya hai kya? Tu doctor ke pass dimaag ke liye jaa raha hai?’ That is taboo. I don’t think we should look at it like that. That is something I would want to do and I’m sure Genelia would want to do, too. Also, it’s important for kids to talk to kid psychiatrists to see what they think and unke dimaag me kya chal raha hai. Kyunki hum log baat kar paate hai, bacche baat nai kar paate, so it becomes really difficult for them to sometimes express what they’re feeling and how they’re going about things.

These are tough times. Keep smiling; try to be happy because everything around you can be depressing. So, share a joke with someone. Yes, agar family me taklif hai toh uss ke saath toh aapko deal karna hai – hum sabko deal karna hai – par jab nahi hai toh kisi ke saath joke share karo, kisi dost ko phone lagayiye, uske saath thoda hasso. This is the time to make the most of it, to connect with people that you’ve lost contact with and try to be happy – as happy as we can be because only through happiness and togetherness can we survive this together.

 

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session of Riteish Deshmukh in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

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